Karate Girl (2011) by Yoshikatsu Kimura

10 years after her father was killed and her sister kidnapped, Ayaka Kurenai (Rina Takeda), descendent of the legendary Kurenai Karate-ka Shoujiro, is drawn back into a conflict with the man who killer her father (Tatsuya Naka) in attempt to steal the family’s prized black belt. Ayaka, under a changed name, is working at a movie theatre, when her incredible karate skills in taking down a thief bring her to the attention of Muto (Kazutoshi Yokoyama), who soon realises that she survived an attack on their dojo 10 years prior. Muto has been training her younger sister Natsuki (Hina Tobimatsu), also under an alias, to his own leathal style of karate. Ayaka has no choice but to take him on, along with his henchman Keith (Richard Heselton), rescue her sister, and resist attempts to take the black belt from her.

“Karate Girl” is a martial arts film first and foremost, with the story providing only a loose thread to tie together various set-pieces. The plot is simplistic and predictable and there are a few eye-rollingly questionable moments, such as why characters would be wearing karate gi outdoors; or why they suddenly move to the rooftop for the final confrontation. Muto is a cartoon villain, complete with his own underground lair-cum-dojo where he concocts his nefarious schemes. It is highly likely you will know exactly how the story will end after the introductory five minutes, and one of the central twists seems so obvious it is surprising the characters take so long to realise it. However, the negatives out of the way, the actual karate is incredibly well choreographed, fluid and energetic. Director Yoshikatsu Kimura worked as second-unit director with star Rina Takeda on “High-Kick Girl” (2009) and here again we see him making the best of her skills. The direction, utilising a hand-held style and minimal editing makes these scenes enjoyable and you can see the skill of the performers. These scenes are packed with variety, largely involving large scale fights between the protagonists and a host of villains. There are moments where it is clear no attempt is being made by the foils to fight back or evade being struck, but its still a joy to see the high-kicking, wall-jumping, acrobatic style. Takeda and Hina Tobimatsu, who play Ayaka and Natsuki, are incredibly talented, really selling their kata and fights, helped by a large cast of able stunt performers. We see some behind the scenes training over the credits that shows what effort went in to creating some of these moments.

Your enjoyment of this film will depend on how much you enjoy watching karate. The plot is paper-thin, exisiting solely to set up a central conflict between Ayaka and Muto. However, the action scenes are well shot and entertaining enough to make it worth a watch for fans of martial arts films. Similar to “High-Kick Girl”, but with a slightly higher production value. The film makes some attempt at a message, with the contrast between Ayaka’s belief, passed down by her father, that karate is for protection, and the villain’s advocacy of karate being used to kill. But its hard to kid yourself that this film is more than it sets out to be, an enthusiastic, action-packed karate film with two incredible lead performances. In this regard it absolutely succeeds.

Baby Assassins (2021) by Yugo Sakamoto

Two high-school assassins attempt to develop covers as ordinary members of society in this action-comedy. Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and Chisato (Akari Takaishi) are skilled killers but lack any knowledge of the real world, having comfortably managed to maintain a front as high-schoolers while they carry out jobs for their mysterious employer, a man who delivers targets to them from time to time. They are told that they should move in together and start looking for part-time work, a prospect which doesn’t appeal to either of the girls. As they struggle to adapt, with Mahiro failing a series of interviews, and Chisato finding employment in a maid cafe, a fresh threat appears in the shape of a violent Yakuza boss and his children.

Written and directed by Yugo Sakamoto, your enjoyment of “Baby Assassins” will vary based on the mileage you get out of the comedic premise: the juxtaposition of hardened, efficient killers and absent-minded, socially-awkward teens. This whiplash from murder to mundanity provides much of the humour, with one scene showing them disposing of a corpse before moving immediately onto worrying if they have time to make the film they have tickets to. “Baby Assassins” wastes no time and at just over 90 minutes, it moves at a lively pace. This is understandable as the story is simplistic and the sadistic Yakuza villain is such a familiar archetype he hardly needs much introduction. The highlight of the film is the relationship between Chisato and Mahiro, with fantastic performances from Akari Takaishi and Saori Izawa. They capture the bored teen mindset and also look extremely competent in the action sequences, shifting seamlessly from cold-blooded murder to everyday concerns about ruining their clothes. This relationship also provides the emotional heart of the film as their differences lead to confrontation between them. Mahiro is introverted and slightly less well-suited to adult life, while Chisato is more bright and cheerful, easily able to adapt to part-time work at a maid cafe. The action sequences, courtesy of stunt director Kensuke Sonomura are gory and energetic, with emphasis again on the humour rather than any serious consequences, showcasing the girls’ training and utilising gun-fu and hand-to-hand combat. The final third is taken up with a highly entertaining takedown of the Yakuza orginization, which comedically undermines this fairly stereotypical third-act sequence by having the girls comfortably dispatch most of them, completely emasculating the hard ganster aesthetic. This ease in which the killings sometimes proves a double-edged sword, providing a few laughs at the casual way the girls deal with their targets, but also leaving little time for any real tension. This is most apparent in a scene in which two major villains are dispatched, their deaths used as a gag that comes as a surprise but leaves you feeling that the film has robbed you of a more significant confrontation between the heroes and villains.

“Baby Assassins” is a fun take on both the assassin genre and the teen friendship movie, running these parallel stories of Mahiro and Chisato attempting to get along as well as the background evil of the Yakuza. The best scenes are in the maid-cafe with Chisato taking to it easily, while Mahiro is visibly uncomfortable with attempting to present a cheerful face to the public. There is a subtle satire on the current state of work and how young people are supposed to adapt to society, brought out when the girls speak with the maid cafe staff. The top maid is amazed that they have so much money for lunch, barely able to afford a decent meal herself. The girls are financially stable through their assassination work, part of the reason why the jobs they are applying for hold so little interest for them. It is not something the film dwells on, but it certainly makes you wonder whether a world in which murder is remunerated far better than almost any other job is one that is functioning correctly. There is also a feminist bent to the film, with the young women being constantly underestimated by their targets, which makes it even easier for the girls to kill them. The film sets up two entertaining characters, with enjoyable central performances, and it is a film that lends itself perfectly to sequels. While the film is light on story, it works well as an introduction to the characters and world and it would be great to see more of them.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unsho Ishizuka) are bounty hunters and the sole crew of the spaceship Bebop. The show opens with plenty of questions as to their backgrounds and relationship, not least in the intriguing noirish flashbacks we see featuring Spike. The pair live in a precarious financial situation, chasing bounties that just about ensure they have enough food to live. Their crew is later expanded when they unwittingly come into posession of a Shiba dog with  expermentally enhanced intelligence named Ein; and later a woman on the run from serious debts named Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara). Their motley crew gains another member when an orphaned super-hacker named Edward (Aoi Tada) joins them.

The strength of “Cowboy Bebop” is in its blend of genres, part-noirish crime thriller, part-western, with elements of science-fiction and comedy. This allows for a variety of storylines and the majority of episodes are stand alone, both narratively and thematically. The stories are fast-paced, necessarily so as they set up fresh villains, problems, concepts, worlds and solutions in the space of a single episode. There are a few episodes that could be considered throwaway or filler, such as the horseriding bounty hunter, but the majority do a great job in creating a novel challenge and cast of secondary characters that keep things interesting. One unusal aspect of the characters is that they seem quite isolated from themselves, more so than the usual odd couple relationship, they are simply five individuals who happen to be thrown together and the series only briefly touches on the relationships between them. Some of the best episodes are those that uncover the backstories of Jet, Spike and Faye, as these give a much-needed emotional counterweight to the visual bombast of gunfights and chase sequences.

From the opening double-bass strains of the theme song, the “Cowboy Bebop” score perfectly captures the atmosphere of a space western, with a fusion of twanging guitars and jazz. Most episodes have a musical link in the title and the score is clearly a huge part of the enjoyment of the show, giving it a sense of style and paying homage to great science fiction and western films. The visuals likewise exudes cool, with instantly recognizable characters whose design speaks to their character. It is also fun to note references to contemporary brands in the backgrounds. The animation of the fight sequences is one of the highlights of the series, with an incredible sense of movement and danger. This is helped immensely by some stunning editing that bolsters the frenetic sense of danger. All parts work in tandem, the design, editing and score, to create something that is eye-catching and engaging.

“Cowboy Bebop” gives us a future that is far from utopian, using its platform to comment on contemporary societal problems with a depressing prognosis that things are not heading in a postive direction. We see ecological catastrophe in the shape of asteroids that have decimated the planet earth; the ills of privatised medicide and unscrupulous companies; corruption rife in the government and police systems; and overall a lawless society where morality is ever shifting. References to both science-fiction and western genres, representing the future and the past, further emphasises this sense that humanity is doomed by the same weaknessess that have dogged its past, such as greed, crime, and selfishness. Despite advances in technology in the show, the society itself has failed to progress, with outlaws, bandits and criminals still barely kept under control, and an almost imperceptible line between bounty hunting vigilantes and offical law enforcement. This focus on time also plays a prominent role in Faye’s story and asks interesting questions on who we are and where we are going. Faye, suffering amnesia, is perhaps the best representative of the show’s philosophy as a whole, with no idea of either her past or her future. Human’s in “Cowboy Bebop” are simply buoyed along by the vicissitudes of fate, struggling against a deeply unfair system. A fantastic action sci-fi western with bags of charm, enjoyable characters, and a pointed satire on contemporary society.

Black Fox: Age of the Ninja (2019) by Koichi Sakamoto

A historical live-action spin-off/prequel to the anime film “Black Fox”, the story takes us back in time to provide an origin myth for the titular hero. We are thrown straight into the action with Miya (Maimi Yajima) running for her life from the Negoroshu clan who killed her father. She manages to find the Foxes, a group of ninja warriors, whom she begs for help in getting revenge. Among the Foxes is Rikka (Chihiro Yamamoto), the grand-daughter of their leader, whose aversion to killing makes her something of a pariah in the group, despite her heritage. We discover that the Negoroshu, led by Lady Haku (Mami Fujioka) are looking for Miya to obtain her magical abilities to emit electricity, frazzling her enemies. They are working for Shigetsugu (Yuki Kubota), who is under the command of by the evil Lord Burado (Hideo Ishiguro).

“Black Fox: Age of the Ninja”, written by Naoki Hayashi and directed by Koichi Sakamoto, provides comic-book action, with a simple story, magical powers and over-the-top theatrics. There are few surprises here, with it being a straightforward battle between good and evil, and little depth to the characters, who fall into either the likeable hero or nefarious villain roles. The script likewise has some on-the-nose dialogue with characters spouting exposition about events, and comic asides that give the feel of a live-action manga. The film is clearly aimed at a younger audience, with bloodless fight sequences, and inclusions of the Black Fox’s CGI enhanced special 9-tailed attack move firmly establishing it as a fantasy depiction of the ninja. The fight choreography is well-done, with energetic camera work and all of the performers selling the action. It is a case where the interludes for story are something that has to be patiently waited through until the next set-piece brawl. These fight sequences are worth it though, showing off the abilities of the cast, as well as a mix of techniques, with Chinese-style swordplay alongside ninja-type attacks, the characters relying on trickery and wiles rather than brute strength.

The story’s twin protagonists, Miya and Rikka, both embody the image of young women determining their own path. Miya has been sheltered by her father, ostensibly to keep her from harm, though we later learn that she has been lied to and exploited. Rikka meanwhile lives in the shadow of her grandfather, and her deceased father, having to choose between the warrior code of one and the peaceful, non-violent approach of the other. While it is not a film that attempts to reinvent the wheel of historical action cinema, it does what it does well, delivering some excellent fight sequences and an all-ages story of good triumphing over evil.

The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (2021) by Kan Eguchi

Following on directly from the first “Fable” film, we find the legendary hitman (Junichi Okada) living under his secret identity of Akira Sato in Osaka, alongside his associate posing as his sister (Fumino Kimura). He is still working at the design company alongside Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Kainuma (Masao Yoshii). Sato’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a former target who is now running a non-profit organization for disadvantaged children as a front for his criminal activities. Four years ago Fable took down five members of his group, but was called off killing Utsubo himsel. Utsubo is out to avenge his brother’s death. Sato is also reunited with a young woman, Hinako (Yurina Hirate) who he saved from the gang, but whose spine was damaged in the rescue.

“The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill” is an enjoyable follow up to the first film, delivering the same mix of action and comedy. The first film had its problems with uneven tone and pacing, neither of which are fixed here. Essentially this sequel succeeds and fails in all the same ways as the previous film. The film recycles several weak gags, such as the Jackal Tomioka and hot food elements of Fable’s character, and again the odd blend of slapstick alongside genuinely gruesome killings and abuse is often hard to reconcile. The opening action sequence is incredible and there are some highly entertaining and inventive action moments, with use of extreme slow-motion to show Fable’s incredible reflexes. The film often seems at a loss when outside of these action moments, struggling to know exactly what to do with the characters, who are largely stereotypical action heroes or villains. The story of Hinako is a welcome addition, adding some much needed emotion and the way the characters backstories are intertwined is interesting. This time there is far more of a connection to Fable’s past and therefore it feels far more meaningful. Yoko is also given more to do in this film, showing her own martial prowess.

Fans of the first film will enjoy this and it delivers some fantastic fight scenes and action. It is hard to see why they wouldn’t simply go for a straight-up action film, retaining some of the better character-led comedy while removing the sillier elements. It’s a missed opportunity as taken individually there are some incredible scenes, but it often feels like two distinct films spliced together, one an ultra-violent and stylish underworld thriller and the other a wacky comedy. Overall, the film is an improvement on the first and certainly has elements to recommend it despite its flaws.